| Why real satisfaction requires purpose and transcendence
By Michael Phillip
When my darling cat is splayed out in a warm flesh puddle on my lap purring the post-dinner hour away. I truly believe she is happy. When I’m running down a wooded path with my family’s precious yet insane golden retriever off-leash (him not me), I’m quite certain he’s filled with lupine joy.
When the subject turns to human happiness, however, the waters muddy considerably. We seem to have misplaced our capacity for that sort of pure single-minded joy. We probably left it on the same rung of the evolutionary ladder that sparked self-awareness. Whenever it was that meta-cognition, that is, the ability to think about our thoughts, kicked in.
I don’t mean to imply that we’ve been completely ripped from Eden or that there’s no distillate of happiness for us to experience. It’s just that it, like everything humans do, is cloaked in layer after layer of context, confusion, and nuance.
Just as a spider spins a web or a bee builds a hive, humans think about thoughts. It’s in our nature. Consider the following words — Prognosticating, imagining, daydreaming, conceptualizing, worrying, hoping — Right there, that’s a half dozen distinct flavors of thought just off the top of my head (seven if you count the word ‘consider’).
To complicate matters more, rarely, if ever, are we engaging in just one of the above. At any given moment we’re usually swimming in a swirling blender of the aforementioned psychic tides.
To put it simply, we’re complicated. We have multidimensional, linguistic, orchestral inner lives. Juxtapose that against comparatively simple psychic terrain of the animal mind I mentioned above and an unmistakable chasm appears. The mind of animal harbors only a shade, if any, of our reflective capacities. You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to make that assertion. It’s a simple observation. Animals don’t care what they look like, they don’t have any political opinions, they don’t have a 401(k) to worry about, they’re not mentally miming potential arguments with their absentee landlords, none of it. Rather, they’re glued to the present moment; to whatever input they’re receiving right now. That, I posit, is why my cat can fully commit to being a loving pile of boneless goop ten times a day and I can’t. Not without good drugs, at any rate.
Shapes of Human Happiness
I’m not writing this to argue that it’s preferable to incarnate as a rich family’s pet. I’m highlighting the fact that our unparalleled neuron density is a double-edged sword. I’m pointing out that the unrivaled processing power of the wetware between our ears holds both heaven and hell. Given that, human happiness is a tricky cipher.
Sticking with the sword simile we can, of course, become more adept at wielding our minds. Unfortunately, that’s where the comparison ends, because unlike a blade, the human mind isn’t solid. If anything, it’s more the opposite. Yet as liquid as our subjectivity is, we can, through will, practice and circumstance learn to chart a course toward contentment.
This not a ‘how to be happy’ listicle, that said let’s take a look at some examples of how real, undeniable happiness manifests for humans.
When an elite athlete enters a state of high performance or an adept painter strikes a spring of creative flow, they tap into something more profound than even the purest animal pleasure (including single-minded kitten cuddles). When we’re enraptured by the glory of a piece of incredible music in a venue filled with other awe-drunk spectators we, at least for a moment, brush up against higher forms of collective happiness and satisfaction than any other species on the planet can comprehend. Even we, in all of our data-drenched glory, can’t fully grok these states.
As beautiful as they are, those examples are not the pinnacle. They’re a mere trickle of the highest of high happiness. The sort of happiness that can’t be described without doing violence to it. I’m talking about the happiness of legend. The happiness of the mystic merged into the profoundly united ecstasy of existence. The sort of happiness that feels like completion. The realm of happiness in which the ridiculousness of the human condition suddenly becomes incomprehensibly poetic and perfect.
I posit that that, the highest happiness, actually requires carrying the crippling weight of our unendingly complex neurosis-laden minds. Why? — because there’s incredible pleasure in letting go of its heavy burden. To put it another way, in moments of high ecstasy we’re able to bathe in incredible relief, joy, union, and gratitude precisely because there’s an incredible load to put down. If it weren’t for our ridiculous, sordid, complex, egoic, ruminative, psychostructure we’d never be able to feel the uniquely human relief of letting it go.
Why We Continue Wearing Masks
So if merging fully with the experience of what we’re doing serves as a portal to deep, uniquely human sorts of happiness by temporarily nullifying the psychic poisons of our cognitive condition, why don’t we do it more? Why don’t we make a point of hunting for transcendence, wonder or flow with the same vigor we do our education, careers or bank accounts?
I would argue that we don’t know how. The sources of that ignorance are multifaceted, but I believe that the lion’s share of the blame rests in the roots of our values as a consumption-based civilization. Sure, ‘the pursuit of happiness’ is supposed to be a human right around these parts, but try paying for your Blue Apron subscription with good vibes (I scoured their website, ‘good vibes’ does not seem to be an accepted form of payment). If happiness is anything like what I’ve discussed above, it’s an ephemeral, fleeting process with peaks and valleys. It’s not a place you can stay. It builds, climaxes and dissipates with each manifestation. It’s an arc that’s not commodifiable, capturable or even fully definable. Which, in turn, means it can’t be sold. Therefore, it isn’t valuable in a capitalistic sense. Given that, we don’t learn about the possibility of pure awe-filled rapture in school or from our parents (unless we’re extremely lucky). As a result, we lack the tools to properly seek for and receive it (again, unless we’re blessed with some unusual luck, drive or talent).
A quick aside —
Of course, there is overlap between this undefinable happiness process and its capitalistic containers. I’ve absolutely been enraptured by big-budget pieces of media. What touches my soul in those instances, however, isn’t coming from the configuration of pixels on the screen. It’s not flowing from the intellectual property of the media conglomerate. It’s not even due to the psycho-cultural symbols lurking behind the scenes. All of the above are just vessels or protocols. They’re just the finger pointing at the moon, to use a tried, but true, phrase.
As the inimitable Joseph Campbell puts it in his masterpiece, The Hero With a Thousand Faces —
“To grasp the full value of the mythological figures that have come down to us, we must understand that they are not only symptoms of the unconscious, as indeed are all human thoughts and acts, but also controlled and intended statements of certain spiritual principles which have remained as constant throughout the course of human history as the form and nervous structure of the human physique itself.”
In other words, nothing we make, not even the highest human works, modern or ancient, secular or spiritual, can reliably hold the high happiness we seek. It’s too ephemeral. It must be experienced on an individual basis. However, I (and Campbell) believe(d) that if your set and setting are right, a properly timed, well-formed blast of myth or art might offer you a glimpse at the shape of real, radiant, transcendent happiness.
To exacerbate this corporeal confusion, this mistaking the messenger for the message, we often willingly propagate faulty notions about happiness ourselves. We propel the idea that the right combination of ownable things results in increased satisfaction and happiness. Perhaps we do it because it’s what we think we’re supposed to do. Perhaps decades worth of ceaseless cultural programming has penetrated our psychology so deeply that it’s bound to seep into our behavior. After all, on television happy people tend to have nice cars, homes, and looks, so we probably should too.
Let’s be real though, there’s clearly a level of material wealth you don’t want to be beneath. If you’re grinding for just the bare minimum, happiness will be elusive. If you’re making minimum wage, you won’t have enough good vibes in the tank to even attempt smooth talking Blue Apron customer service. Still, despite our obsession with it, research shows that wealth, after a certain point, doesn’t necessarily equal more happiness —
“Researchers came up with a bold conclusion: The ideal income for individuals is $95,000 a year for life satisfaction and $60,000 to $75,000 a year for emotional well-being… once that threshold was reached, further increases in income were actually associated with reduced happiness.”
So let’s boil these musings down to an actionable question — How do we cultivate a multifaceted, healthy happiness alchemy in our own lives?
This still isn’t a ‘how to be happy’ listicle, that said, let’s explore our definitions a bit more.
Ugly, Everyday Happiness
Clearly the peak, white-hot, transcendent and flow-based sexy sorts of happiness I riffed about earlier aren’t sustainable. They’re sometimes states. We all have the right to visit these modes of consciousness (I personally like the idea of scheduling at least a few occasions to do so each year), but no one has the right to live in them. It’s not neurochemically or logistically possible. Also, good luck melting into cosmic unity when you drop your phone in the toilet.
So how about more mundane, daily sorts of happiness and fulfillment? What do those look like? How do we cultivate them?
I like the idea of dividing this topic into two parts — Inward and outward happiness.
Inward happiness, of course, is about your mindset. What is your psychic disposition when no one is looking? Do you generally have a subjectively positive, progressive outlook? Do you believe it’s within your power to improve your circumstances?
The outward component, then, is about action and external endeavors. Are you executing the right actions? Are you inserting yourself in the proper situations? Are you surrounding yourself with encouraging, inspiring people?
We’re beginning to poke at cliché, so I’m sure you’ve considered the above before, but that doesn’t change the fact that those questions are of real import. Being able to answer them in the affirmative requires discipline, accountability and ceaseless development and maintenance of the right psycho-physical feedback loops. To cultivate this sort of every day, plodding, ugly happiness we have to work. We have to continuously identify and chase the right goals. We have to sharpen our minds and bodies. We have to curate the right tribe and partake in meaningful, satisfying works that yield a positive outcome for ourselves and others. That is what everyday happiness smells like. I know, it’s not necessarily revolutionary or pretty when you look at the directions. Everyday happiness is sort of like getting a shit ton of Ikea furniture. Before it’s assembled, it’s an uninspiring confusing mess, but if you outlast the pain and keep making moves, you’ll eventually arrive at something nice-ish.
This dovetails into my final, possibly most important, musing — Happiness doesn’t always feel good. Doing anything worthwhile requires acute discomfort. It hurts when you’re training for a marathon. It’s frustrating to learn an instrument. It sucks an anchor’s worth of balls when you’ve put several hours of work into a podcast episode only to have your editing program crash, forcing you to do it all over again. Bending chaos into a shape that’s attractive is going to leave you with some scars — mental, physical or both. To make matters worse, as much as we like to believe there is, there’s not always a trophy for our efforts. Sometimes you just try really hard and fail. Some people can’t handle that. One bitter squirt of failure and they tap out.
What keeps me going in the face of failure is this — Even if I have to swallow dozens of bitter squirts along the way, I know that there’s an unbelievably delicious elixir out there that I’m getting progressively closer to finding. When I do, all of that nastiness will have been worth it. To put it in less ridiculous terms, rejection and pain imply progress. Feeling imbued with a sense of progress, as I mentioned before, is a key element of both internal and external contentment.
Happiness Is a Slippery Beast
Real happiness is anything but straightforward, it’s a shapeshifting beast. If anything, we should probably carve the concept into several different terms (the Greeks were on to something with all of their different words for ‘love’). That said, I’m confident in saying this — The sort of happiness that I’m interested in is not defined by what we have. It’s not photographically captured in the grins of a well-coiffed fleece-wearing family. It’s not simply about warm fuzzy feels. It’s about transcendence, purpose, and overcoming. It’s about identifying a great work — Finding something that matters to us almost as much as breathing and going toward it, even when it hurts.
I swear to god, this isn’t a listicle or a ‘how to’ article, but I want to leave you with two actionable challenges —
First, experience a form of higher happiness this year. It’s up to you how you want to do it. You can go on a meditation retreat, drink ayahuasca or jump out of an airplane. Whatever it is, it should be an experience disruptive enough to shake your reality and put your existence into perspective. It should leave you grateful and in awe.
Second, dare to seriously sit down and define everyday happiness for yourself. Ask yourself the questions I posited about your inner and outer happiness in the ‘Ugly, Everyday Happiness’ section of this article. Determine where you’re lacking and, most importantly, specifically identify what would bring you more meaning joy and satisfaction on a daily basis.